Building Vibrant Developer Communities Heavybit
Despite your greatest hopes, developer communities don’t just happen on their own. An engaged community can improve the quality of your product, speed up development, and refer you to potential customers but it takes hard work, time, and dedication to reach that point. How can founders and early teams build healthy and vibrant communities in such a way that their efforts aren’t wasted?
For this panel we brought together a group of developer relations experts to discuss how they’ve built and maintained vibrant, active developer communities for their organizations. Read our key takeaways from this session here.
- Mike Stowe, Sr. Manager, Developer Product Marketing at RingCentral
- Tamao Nakahara, Organizer of DevRelCon and Head of DX at Weave.works
- Dave Nugent, Developer Advocate for IBM Developer SF.
Jesse Davis: We are really excited to be here with you all, thanks for taking time out of your evening to come to what we hope is a very productive and informative session on developer communities for you all. It’s really exciting for me to spend time with some pretty amazing people in the community space.
The panel that I have up here, colleagues in the space and even friends, so you’ll get a lively discussion and hopefully a lot of information that you can take back and help you make decisions as you build out your own developer communities.
My name is Jesse Davis. I run a development team, I’m head of product at a company called Devada. It’s funny, I started out my career as a developer and I developed software for a long time, and recently I get to wake up every day and help the lives of developers all over the world better by building great communities. I hope to share some of that information and experience with you tonight. I’m really excited to be moderating this panel, and instead of me introducing everyone I’d like for them to introduce themselves, so we’ll start with Tamao. If you would just give a brief introduction of yourself, and get to know the audience.
Tamao Nakahara: Hi, my name is Tamao Nakahara and I currently run a developer experience team at a startup called Weave.works. We’re in the Kubernetes space, and if we go far back I started out in the partner space at VMware, but I was the scrappy person who discovered this thing called Oracle User Groups.
That was my first touch into how certain communities did grassroots stuff, and then at VMware they acquired a company called Spring Source, and that created the first DevRel team around Cloud Foundry and Spring. I signed up day one, I was like “Oh my God, what is this thing?” I got obsessed with that and how that worked, and how I just felt really attached to it. Then we got spun off into Pivotal with a lot of the open source bits that were there, so you might know RabbitMQ, Redis, Grooving Grails, of course Spring and Cloud Foundry and others.
Then after that I was at New Relic, and so ran a developer relations team more in a marketing org, and now developer experience brings all these different pieces together. Because we’re very much a team that spends a lot of our time
contributing to the Kubernetes space, and then building our own open source projects. So a wide range of developer marketing through open source through products. If you want to ask me about any of those, I’m happy to help.
Jesse: Awesome. Dave?
Mike Stowe: All right. I’m Mike Stowe, and I have no idea what my official title is at RingCentral. I stopped counting after the first four words.
Dave: Check your business card —
Mike: My business card. So I run RingCentral’s developer marketing program , and before that I started off as an engineer, and I was an engineer for about 15 years. A lot of people use a term “Self-taught developer,” but I like the term “Community-taught developer,” because I made way too many mistakes to be self-taught and the community really bailed me out. Or, so I thought. After 15 years people saw my code in production and said “Go to marketing.” So, here I am.
Jesse: Thanks, Mike. Great team this evening for you all. A lot of experience and community, hopefully we’ll get into some of the specific questions. If not, like Mina said, we’ll have Q&A at the end and then we’ll also be able to go out and meet each of you individually afterwards and hopefully get to the questions, if you have them, that are burning.
But I wanted to start off, as we think about community, it’s funny to consider “What is community?” There many different aspects of it and whenever I think about community, I think about the human aspect. We’re trying to bring humans together. Connection, building places where people belong. So as we get started, when you define community just in a few words, what do you think community is?
Mike, why don’t we start with you and come back this way?
Mike: You just start with a tough question off the bat. I think community can be summed up in one word, and that is “Relationships.”
Community is this right here. It’s a chance to build together, talk about things that they’re interested in, share their interests, bond with each other and move forward together as a single organism.
Jesse: Yeah, makes sense.
Dave: My interest in community has always really been on the in-person side of things. I know that it can be really powerful online, but as a conference organizer and a meet up organizer, I really value those personal relationships that you get in an in-person gathering.
Tamao: To piggyback on all those, as I mentioned, I had been involved in product user groups and open source community groups, and I feel like the thing that feels most meaningful is people wanting to come together to discuss and help each other around certain topic areas where maybe they don’t really get that in their workplace. Or, build together on something where they don’t feel like they can get the financial support to do that. So sometimes it’s that personal meaning that comes out of those
different interactions as well.
Jesse: Awesome. Some good definitions. When someone is beginning to think about building a community, at what stage should they think about building the community?
What are those steps that they have to start to be able to do such a thing? Tamao, why don’t you go first.
Tamao: I would start with finding out where the communities are happening organically. I think we’ve maybe all had an experience where we feel like we’re brute forcing the creation of a community, or we feel like there’s a business need. I just feel in my personal experience that it’s not really going to work unless it happens among people who are
maybe organizing their own meet up groups already. Because they’re just so excited about an open source project that you created, or they just love your product so much that they’re out there tweeting about it, or doing stuff.
Sometimes building that community is around recognizing and then giving some formal relationship to what you think is happening organically. I feel like if it comes the other way around, you’re going to often have an uphill battle.
Mike: I think in terms of the first part of the question, “At what stage do you build a community?” Or, “Should your business start looking at building a community?” I think the question really is, “How much money do you want to throw away on marketing before you realize that word of mouth is the best marketing?” What I mean by that is, how many people here have heard of a thing called Goat Yoga? I learned about this today, I’d never heard of this. A friend told me, again, word of mouth.
How many people saw the Starbucks cup in Game of Thrones? A couple people. How many people know that wasn’t a Starbucks cup? They got something like $7 Million dollars worth of – – I don’t even know what the number is.
Free marketing because the community that they had was talking about a product that wasn’t even theirs. That’s what community can really do, it not only gives the ability to expand your company and tell people how they’re using it, but provide you feedback at the same time. So if you’re saying, “Look. We want to go to market with this product, is it going to sell? Are people going to buy it?”
Going to your community, they can tell you “This is great, but this doesn’t work. You need to revise this.” So, I would start with community as the very first thing, I think it’s one of the first things you should do.
Jesse: Awesome. Dave?
Dave: I have a question now. What was the “Goat Yoga” thing?
Tamao: You do yoga with baby goats, and they walk on you.
Dave: I thought you were kidding when you said you were going to mention that during the panel.
Jesse: It’s a real thing, unfortunately.
Mike: Word of mouth.
Jesse: It’s a real thing.
Dave: But I think you had a great point about paving the cow paths of the community, because I think we’ve all been in a situation where you start up a forum or something and that’s just not the way that your customers and your community members want to interact with you.
I gave a presentation on a topic where there were three people in the audience, so obviously that was not a topic that people in the community were responding well to.
Although in my defense, there was also a Warriors playoff game that night and the season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, so that might have had something to do with it.
Jesse: Got it.
Dave: But yeah, find what your community is interested in and how they want to communicate, and double down on it.
Tamao: If I could share, I’m sure people heard about the “Instant Pot phenomenon,” and I just think what they do just makes so much sense, and is really a huge part of their success. I myself had a rotation of every three years somehow thinking that maybe I need a pressure cooker, and there I was. I literally came to it cold, like so many people, and I had two video options.
I had something on YouTube by a community member who probably then was paid or supported in some way as a brand ambassador, but she had a 20 minute video about the new version of the instant pot and all the features that they had changed based on the community and user feedback.
Little things like the way the lid stood, and these things. She broke it down, and then it turned out she also has a book of recipes that if you buy an Instant Pot, her recipes and other people’s recipes are officially in this printed book. Not just in English, but in different languages. It was just like “We didn’t have time to translate, but here’s
these different community members.”
So I’m watching this, and then the competitor’s video was a product marketing manager just dryly going through stuff that meant nothing to me, that had nothing to do with what I was looking for. So for me it was a clear winner, and then this whole phenomenon took off. That’s so much of what we do. We’re seeing what’s happening organically, we’re validating it, we’re helping and we’re showing thanks and making it real, and part of the conversation. I can’t talk enough about how amazing they are, and how much we can learn and what we do from what they accomplish.
Jesse: Do you have one of those pots now?
Tamao: Hell yeah. Because I purchased after I said, “Look at this community member. This is great.”
Jesse: It’s interesting. It’s a good point that you make, and we’ll get to some more of the details of that later. But one of the key reasons that you have a community is to make products better. Capturing that feedback and being able to take action on it.
That’s a really good point, whenever you think about other advantages of standing up community, Mike, you specifically said “As early as possible” in your answer. So what are some of the advantages, as those in the room are thinking about stand up community, what are the advantages of standing it up early versus waiting until it’s too late?
Mike: I think one of the first advantages is you find out if your product really meets the community’s needs. Now you can throw a lot of ideas out there, and I’ll pick on myself for example. I worked for a company, or as a contractor for a company a long time ago, where we built this API and we put this API out there. We were excited. We spent nine months building this thing and it was amazing.I followed all the best practices, the code was perfect, and I know because I wrote it. I don’t know why people laugh at that, but we put it out there and three weeks later we realized we had a problem. No one was using it. It didn’t meet their needs and it wasn’t what they wanted. So the first part, it goes back to product validation.
The second part is it goes back to a lot of your competitors. We look at my past, for example. I joined a company called Constant Contact. How many people have heard of Constant Contact? How many people have heard of Mailchimp? Yeah, so a little bit more hands for Mailchimp. So I had to go into the developer’s space and talk about Constant Contact versus Mailchimp, and every way which is like, “Why don’t I just use Mailchimp?”
I worked too with another company called MuleSoft, and we had to go against small companies like Informatica, Dell, Microsoft, Oracle, companies that have well-established programs. The thing that helped us was our community. Not only did they validate the product and not only did they help us improve, we also [opened source so that they could open source], but they started being that voice for MuleSoft. Pretty soon MuleSoft became actually the number one IPaaS in the market. Our community took a large responsibility for that.
Jesse: Good point.
Dave: One of the interesting things about community also is I don’t know if it’s ever really too late, but I think when you have a product online and you have people using it and they’re interacting with it, a community is probably going to grow around that organically even if you don’t do anything to manage it. The benefit that you get out of actively managing the community is that you get to leverage that feedback, and you get to set the tone and impart your values and morals on the community, and help guide and shape it. So that stuff is out there and it’s just waiting for you to get value.
Tamao: I’ll also add that, for example, if you’re starting out and nobody knows who you are. For example, the startup that I worked at. The beginning days there was some people who new our open source project, but no one knew our brand and we just had really smart people who were great teachers. So I just said, “Let’s just put this online. Let’s just get these talks out there.”
More and more people are just like, “I’ve never heard of you, but you guys really understand Kubernetes. You really seem to know what’s going on.” I was just like, “Let’s create thought leadership around the things– Whatever this community was going to become cared about.” We were just like, “You’re getting started.
You want this information. Here’s some best practices, here’s some information we haven’t found out there.” That just became a place, and then using Slack, people would just come and chat with us, and we were so readily available to help.
People might be like, “How do you guys make your money?” We’re just helping people, and we’re just trying to figure out what the need is. Then your community and the community’s ways of getting connected could be something beyond your product, so when I was at New Relic I realized in a similar way, people were like “OK.”
The brand was pretty well-established by the time I joined, but they were like “You guys are just really smart, your engineers are really cool. You guys are doing cool stuff and I want to meet people.” But then also when we would bring together New Relic customers, they’re like “I really want to go because other New Relic customers have similar problems that I have, and they’re also really smart people and they’re doing cool things.” Sometimes we would have the customers speak, like “I really want to know how they’re solving the similar problem that we have.”
So, it’s not just about “Product” product, it’s just “How do you build something that’s meaningful that people want help on?”
Jesse: Now, you brought up an interesting topic. You used the word “Money.”
Tamao: Did I say the word “Money?”
Jesse: Yeah, you used the word “Money” and it triggered something as I was thinking about it, because money is it’s always important whenever we talk about it. It’s interesting, we were working with a customer and they decided to build a community first, and by building the community first they didn’t end up getting a ticketing system. They got the feedback from the product that we were talking about through the community, and offset the cost for support that way. But as we’re talking about money, I want to ask about how do you prove value?
As we’re talking with companies getting started with community, if “Revenue” the word — I’ll use the word “Revenue”– is the important thing, how do you prove value other than revenue? And how do you think about ROI and value on both sides of the community equation? Let’s start with Mike.
Mike: I think the first thing that happens when we’re talking about revenue is sometimes we look at revenue, and we look at money, and we look at communities and we say “That’s a bad word. We can’t say ‘Money,’ and we can’t say ‘Revenue.'”
The reality is a community has to be symbiotic, it has to be something that benefits your developers and your community. But they company also has to make money, otherwise the company’s not going to be around very long to support the community. In terms of, “How do you prove value?” I think there’s two different types of values that you can have.
You have indirect value and direct value, which comes from the community. Indirect value can be things like support tickets, having your community hop on and help support people so you don’t have to double your support staff to manage that. As a small startup, I’m guessing you probably don’t have a lot of people write documentation, and if you ever decide to use an enterprise-grade ESB [enterprise service bus] that requires Java and you’re a Ruby developer that just got out of boot camp, probably not a great thing. We had a lot of people in our community that actually created that content, like How-To’s and tutorials. You can look at the indirect value, which is the content that you’re community’s creating and the support your community’s providing, basically the headcount that they’re giving you free of charge to make your product be successful. Then you can look at direct value.
So if you’re an API company, you can look at things and say “OK, is the API increasing things like retention? Are customers sticking around longer? How is it affecting the churn and how is affecting upsell?”
For open source, if you’re afraid to sell to your open source community and if you can’t sell to your open source community, that’s a company problem. That’s not a community problem, because your open source community should be excited about the products that you’re creating and they should be excited about using it. For example, I was at MuleSoft and we have many people who use open source MuleSoft because they couldn’t pay $80,000 per core for MuleSoft ESB. The second they got into large enterprise companies, they were like “We should be using the enterprise version.”
You can also look at, “What’s the pipe generated from? The content your community is creating or that you’re driving from the community?” With that said, pipe should not be something you measure your community by. Don’t hold it as a sales value, because the second you do that it becomes a bunch of leads instead of getting to create a bunch of relationships that you can work with.
Jesse: Developers buy you trust. If we’re talking about developer communities, which I think we are, you violate that trust once and it’s gone. So anything else on that, Dave?
Dave: That’s a really good point about trust. Personally, I tend to be really conservative with regards to the value of community. So, you don’t want to have it relate directly to money, but at the same time you want to know “I the stuff that I’m doing actually making money for my company?” I want to be able to prove that at some point. So we’ve actually been able to do that at a few of the startups that I’ve been at, where when we have events we’ll ask for people’s email addresses optionally, and if we create content then we will actually measure click-throughs to the SaaS.
If you cohort out the people who are attending your meet ups and conferences and reading your content, then we would tend to see something like between $6-10 dollars in revenue for every dollar that we spent on community. So even though that shouldn’t be the primary focus, I love to use tactics like that in order to be able to prove it to ourselves, to our own team and to the execs.
Jesse: That was a great– I’m pretty sure I saw three people write that down. That’s a great metric. Anything to add?
Tamao: When I did more straightforward developer marketing, we would basically have dev advocates and community managers who would create assets and they would go through more traditional “You want to touch people 7 times, or 14 times, or whatever to the sale. That’s how you add value.” And then more specifically, we might have dev advocates who are thought leaders in the Java space or in the Ruby space and in the Python space, and so even though you might– It frequently happens where you have a platform or something, and you’re like “The experience should be same across all these different language communities.” You have to understand that each one of them is going to connect in a different way, and if you go and say “The new version of X came out and this is cool about it, and this is annoying, isn’t it?”
You can have that real, authentic conversation and you’re going to build that relationship better, and that’s why you can often build out your teams that way. Those metrics were fairly straightforward. Currently in our role, like I said, it’s developer experience. So there’s a lot more of poking around in different directions, but the tools are not perfect. I consider when I manage my team, they’re doing all these things and I’m just like making sure that it’s in Salesforce. Every little thing, because when you find out when these big deals come through, almost like “What happened?” It will often be one of the steps was “They came to your Slack channel and someone was really nice to them.”
You’ve got to notice that. That is so important because at that point– Actually, I had a team member, one of the guys that reports me was doing something in there and he was tinkering around something in a Kubernetes space. He went to a chat room and the first person was super mean, just talked him down, “Why are you even asking dumb questions?”
He’s more resilient and all that, but just imagine all the ways that someone might engage with you, and that touch point is so important. It’s my job and I see it as my job to make sure that these things all get measured and followed as much as we can because a lot of it’s just quite grey. Then from there, I’m in a space where we’re small, we’ll take money from anywhere. We’re quite creative. But it helps us have some surprises. Like, w don’t know sometimes where some things are going to go. We will build something because we see a problem and then it’ll turn out that a big company decides “We want to invest in you because you’re actually going to solve a much bigger problem that we didn’t see.” We’ve created open source projects where a large company is like, “We want that to work with our thing and we’re willing to pay you for it.”
If we were probably more established, we’d say “We don’t really have channels for that,” but we were like “Thank you. Yes, please.” This is how DX is paying for itself. It’s the wild frontier a little bit.
Jesse: That’s pretty cool. You covered a lot– The use cases you covered are developer marketing, we covered developer experience, and developer relations is thrown in there. Mike was talking about providing value, and Dave too, both on top line and bottom line revenue. Saving money by offsetting support, and then delivering real value in terms of pipeline on the developer marketing side back to the company as well.
So, being able to see your pipeline and capturing that stuff in Salesforce. If we can agree on one thing, it’s that the community is a good source of data for your company, and what you can do with that data to help build what we would call a “Healthy and vibrant community.” I want to explore that just a little bit. When you think about that one line between your community and your sales and marketing efforts, is there something inherently bad about selling to your community? Are there effective ways of cultivating communities that are vibrant and healthy but are still receptive to being able to be sold from that dev marketing side? I’d like to explore that just a little bit.
Dave: It’s very bad, and you should all be ashamed of yourselves.
Tamao: That’s it.
Mike: I disagree.
Jesse: I think Mike might have a different perspective.
Mike: I think that the important thing to remember right off the bat is that it’s not your community, it’s their community.
When you’re a part of a community of people who are excited , whether it’s your product or open source, you should be making it very clear “This is your community and we’re a part of it.”
Just like any community that you are part of, you don’t want to cross that line and go from saying “I’m a part of this community, I ‘m going to contribute to this community,” and a lot of give and take, to becoming “This is us and you work for us, and you give us free labor.” The second cross that line you’re in trouble, and that’s actually one of the funny things. I’ve had companies where my sales teams were not allowed to talk to our developers at all. If a developer reached out to a sales guy, that’s perfectly fine.
I’ve had other companies, MuleSoft and RingCentral are two great examples where our sales team would come to developer events. They came to developer events because they wanted to be part of the community. They understood that the developer wasn’t going to be the decision maker who’s going to sign a million dollar contract, or buy a brand new phone system for their company. But they saw the value of that community, and they would start having these conversations, so they could build that trust and build that respect. Then the developer would be the one going, “I really think this could benefit our company. Why don’t you talk to so-and-so?” So again, when I say that “If you can’t sell to your community, it’s not a community problem it’s a company problem,” what I mean by that is it’s how you’re engaging the community and how you’re approaching the community. Again, it’s not symbiotic.
If you’re not going with the mindset that “We’re here to help developers–” When I was at MuleSoft and when we built out community, we actually had a rule that we would not do anything that did not benefit developers directly. So one of the big challenges there is we decided to ask them for ratings and reviews on MuleSoft’s technology. That was our big test, even asking “Would you rate us on G2 Crowd or Capterra? ” I was like, “Are we crossing a line?” Turned out no, because we built that trust and we built that relationship. They’re like, “Yeah. I’ll rate you. What else can we do to support you?” But again, that was our first rule. “Whatever we do has to support the developer, has to help the developer, has to help them in their career.” Another thing to keep in mind, and then I’ll stop talking– Literally a first for me.
It’s that when you’re marketing your company, when you’re getting involved with the community, the real competition for your developers is not your competitor. It’s time with their family, it’s time with their friends, it’s watching Netflix, it’s spending time with their kids, it’s learning new technologies. There has to be a really good reason for them to be involved in your community and spending time focusing on you versus all those other things.
Jesse: Interesting perspective, thanks. Dave, you jumped in there early, so do you want to give us your perspective?
Dave: I was joking. No, I think when I first started in dev advocacy I was very much on the anti-selling and anti-pushing product, and just focus on the technology and education. I still have a lot of respect for people who do that, but I remember one time I was hosting a meet up and I was working for the startup called PubNub, and I gave my intro presentation and the main presenter gave their presentation, and then afterwards they were like “OK. Good night, everybody.” Then I was talking to somebody afterwards and they’re like, “So what is PubNub?” I was like, “Oh my gosh.
I’m doing my job very poorly right now if you came to the office, you RSVP’d to the meet up and you came to the office and I didn’t tell you what the company does.” So developers do have a certain amount of latent interest in your company, your products, the best practices that you used to engineer your product, and what it does. You’re doing them a bit of a disservice if you ignore that completely, so there’s a certain amount of education that you have to give for your company and product.
Jesse: Deal. Anything to add?
Tamao: I would say I’m sure we all have products in our house and software that we use that we absolutely love.
Dave: Instant pot–?
Tamao: That we’ve told people about. Like, “You’ve got to– I use this software,” and you are so excited that someone’s actually going to listen to how you’ve configured blah, blah, blah and set it up right. We have these things that we do love, and
so the most authentic way to do developer relations and experience is to plug into solving those problems and getting people excited. It’s not–
Selling is just a way to connect, to make sure that the people who really want your stuff and will get excited about your stuff find out about it. So, I think that’s where I try to ground myself , and the fact that I even ended up at VMware was that at the time I was trying to figure out what to do. I’d found this role and my partner at the time, now he does partner engineering stuff, but he was a software engineer and I said “What’s this company, VMware?” And he was like, “Oh my God, workstation is so amazing.” He went on for 30 minutes, like “I love workstation. This is why it’s so great.” He was evangelizing, and at some point somebody sold him that product and he found out about it and all that.
But it’s a joyful experience, so I don’t think we have to be that shy about that when that’s a meaningful connection we’re trying to make. Where people totally understand the value of what they’re paying for, and sometimes they even feel like “They’re not charging me enough for this thing that’s just so life-changing, and they might donate if there’s a side project or they might want to help in certain ways. So in our case right now, the whole last year we would do this Thursday series and I was like, “Let’s do these office hours if you’re an app developer, and you’re thinking about Kubernetes, what kinds of topics would be of concern for you?” And these people would just come every week, and they’re really small conversation groups with slow burn, and then fast-forward I see this email. There’s this guy, and he’s like, “We have no money. We have no money.” And finally, he’s like– I see this email thread and there’s a chief architect involved, and he’s just totally like “We’ve got to buy from these people.
They are so great, and their product is great,” and this and that.
I just thought “We’re just providing a service,” and they loved us. They’re advocating for us.
Jesse: I have to poll the audience, and I can see your hands so you don’t have to turn the lights on. How many of you would love it if people told you that they need to pay you more for your products? Yeah. Valuable, right?
That’s a lot of value built in, that’s real world stuff. I think if we’re talking about improving the bottom line, that’s a great way to do it. In a common thread between what the three of you were saying was building trust with the people in your
community, back to the relationships thing, and you got right into one of the next topics, which is advocacy.
We’re champions, or whatever you want to call it, so running programs and building that trust with your developer community– Tell me a little bit about how you think about community champions or advocates. Talking about how you just talked a little bit about that, and when do you gamify that? How do you codify that status? There’s the word that I wanted to get you with– How do you codify that status, and how do you manage those relationships with those advocates or champions once they get there?
Tamao: I might have a longer answer later, but the gamification part– I know people use certain tools and they think it works and all that, and it’s great. If it works for them it’s great. But for me, I’ve been quite allergic to that. I feel that it can take away from the joy. There’s actually studies on how you get this clear up tick in the beginning because everybody else is getting gamified and they’re all collecting badges, and then they get badge fatigue.
Which is what I call it, because then what’s the meaning? I got into this in the short term, but if you’re building a long term relationship there’s just so many more meaningful ways that you can thank your champions and build relationships with them, and then basically create a platform for them to amplify what they already want and naturally amplify. So that’s the main thing I would add there, is I’ve noticed that some people get into very complicated ways of thinking about how they’re going to think they’re champions. I keep telling them “The most meaningful thing a lot of times is just saying ‘Thank you,’ and you don’t the mail them a physical thing. It’s the recognition that matters, it’s not the object. Because I think a lot of people are like, “We need ten grand because we’re going to mail everybody something.”
Jesse: Just being genuine.
Tamao: Yeah. Just like, “Do the stuff that means something and then the objects are something that would follow.” So, especially if you have a really tight budget, that’s the advice that I’ve always given.
Jesse: Yes. Dave, what do you think about champions and advocates in your world?
Dave: It’s a little bit scary, because, you go out there as a dev advocate and you look at all the advocates who are out there in the community. You’re like, “Oh my gosh, every one of these people is smarter than me. Why am I getting paid to do this?” Because the community out there is just amazing. We get people from the community to give talks at our and conferences and stuff like that. They’re just really smart, so a lot of my role is just facilitating them.
“What can I do for you to make your job easier?” I think I feel a bit the same way about the gamification stuff, and physical objects, because a lot of it is just that they’re doing it because they like your product. They feel that you’re relating to them authentically, so commoditizing that is a double-edged sword.
Jesse: Interesting. Mike?
Mike: All right, I’m going to get myself in trouble on this one now.
Jesse: No, come on.
Mike: Based on those answers, I think there’s–
Dave: Who would believe otherwise? Is there really another–?
Tamao: Who wants to use these tools?
Jesse: We need multiple viewpoints. There you go, give us one.
Mike: At MuleSoft, we ran the MuleSoft Champions Program, which was very heavily gamification. I used some third party software, but it goes back down to again making sure you’re doing what’s right by the developers. So we offered those tangible prizes that we’d ship out. We actually gave away things like iPad Mini’s MacBook Pros that developers could earn, and what we found is we ‘d have a lot of people who would join the program initially just because they want to earn that prize, but our entire goal with the program wasn’t to say “Tweet about us, write about us and we’ll send you a MacBook Pro.”
Our entire program was designed to say, “We’re going to help you grow your career and help you do the things I wish we would help me do when I started off as developer, to learn how to grow my career.” So we had people join, and one of my favorite comments that came back was “I joined this program just for the fun of it. I just wanted to get a prize and earn some badges, get some points. This is one the best educational programs I’ve ever been a part of.” That was what really struck us as the winning factor, we talk about the value from that. The last years at MuleSoft we had about $2 million dollars worth of content created by the external community through that program. The cost to administer the program was less than a single developer evangelist, so we look at that and actually it’s funny. I had a conversation with Rob Spektor before he had left Twilio, and he was talking about the great work that his team was doing, like “Look.
We did all this great work and we got– I think we did 146 blog posts. We did this, and we did this,” and I think he had a team of eight at the time, I don’t remember exactly. He turns to me and he goes “Mike, now your team’s pretty small. You’ve got like three people. How ‘d you guys do for content?” I was like, “We had 5,000 blog posts, we had about 500 videos, we had another 300 tutorials.” And Rob just shook his head and left.
The point is, we can be really valuable to you but you can provide a value to them without making it be “Here, give us something.”
“Take this and we want nothing to do with you.” In fact, many of those people who joined that gamify program are good friends of mine now on Facebook or LinkedIn, because you continue to build that relationship with them. In terms of building a championship program or MVP program. I don’t like traditional MVP programs, which is “You’re our top three people. Congratulations. The rest of you, you’re all peons. You’re not as good as they are.” And that’s not the message that’s trying to be sent, but sometimes that’s the message that does get sent and it’s intimidating because people say, “I want to contribute and I want to be part of this community. I want to be like Dave, I want to be like Tamao, but I can’t do all this stuff. I’m not smart enough, or I don’t know enough, or I don’t have the time.” In fact, with MuleSoft, we brought a guy into our gamify program here and I talked to my engineers like, “We’ve seen him on stack overflow once or twice. He’s not very strong, half the time his answers are wrong, He’s probably not going to be able to contribute much.”
Two and a half years later, when I left MuleSoft, I was at connect central the last time and the engineer at the company goes “Is this guy going to be here?” I said “No. We couldn’t fly him in.”
He goes, “That guy is my hero. He has single-handedly done more than anybody else in this community.” And again, this is a guy who created, I think he by himself created 400 blog posts, he created tutorial videos. Why? Because he had the opportunity to learn and the opportunity to grow, and it wasn’t that we gave him prizes. Yes, he loved the prizes, but it was that we gave him
a chance to grow his career. He now works at a company as a MuleSoft developer, as a senior MuleSoft developer because of that opportunity.
Jesse: That’s a great point, and it’s really cool to see how developers like to give back in the community. We talked a little bit about being genuine and upfront, just saying “Thank you.” Those things go a really long way, just like they do in real life with
other humans. I know we’re running short on time and we want to give those people in the room the opportunity to ask us some questions, so I have one other question for the panelists and we’ll make this a fun one.
As you all can see by the answers and the experience and the stories that these three are bringing you, there’s a depth of experience here. Now, if you’re from where I’m from, “Experience” just means you’ve made more mistakes than everybody else, so I want to talk a little bit about your failures and what you learned from them.
If you could– If you could think of– And I don’t want all your failures, please. We don’t have all evening. I want to talk about some of the times when some experiments you’ve tried, or you had a big negative impact when you were trying to build your community, or something that didn’t go right that you think would be helpful for the audience as they start to build out their own developer communities. Some things that they want to watch out for. Dave, I know this is a topic near and dear to your heart.
Dave: I feel like all that I’ve done this evening is talk about things that I’ve failed at. Talks that nobody attended, forums that nobody used. Yeah, I’m sure I’ve done some–
Jesse: Then give us a tip, something tangible they can take away with them before we get into the questions.
Dave: Don’t do that. No, OK. So you’re going to fail and you’re going to fail a lot, and that’s why it’s important to measure things. Because you have to, when you throw a bunch of darts at the board some of them are going to hit, and those are the ones that you want to double down on.
Some of them are just going to go off and you just have to forgive yourself and keep going. That could be how you sell the products, the technology areas that you’re going after developers in. The types of developers, the size of the company, how you move people from your advocacy, from community to advocacy to your sales pipeline. So many things. Everything you do, measure it, and then hopefully that will lead you to some success. Then you can look back and joke about your failures instead of just crying.
Jesse: On stage, in front of a bunch of other people. Nice.
Dave: I cry in private.
Jesse: OK. Mike, why don’t you go next?
Mike: I think I’ll piggyback off of what you said there. I think one of the biggest failures for myself and then also I think in DevRel is not marketing to developers, but marketing to your own company. Explain to your company what you’re doing, so your point really quickly is to measure everything. You should have a developer journey funnel for your company that they can track, things like awareness to interest, consideration to adoption, all the way to advocacy. You’ll be able to say exactly where the problems are, as Dave said, be one to be agile.
You’re going to have things that don’t work, be able to move very quickly, but also keep in mind that your company is very interested in what you’re doing. Make sure that you’re staying in touch with the stakeholders, sharing with the stakeholders, and put a dollar value to what you do. Even if you can’t put a hard dollar value, letting them know “Here’s the value we’re seeing from the community. Here’s the value we’re seeing.” Because at the end of day, I wish I could say everybody at the company is going to be super altruistic.
It’s like, “Yes. The community is most important thing and we support that,” versus making this next million dollar sale. It doesn’t always work that way, but if you go to them and say “Here’s the value,” it gives the company a reason to invest more in the community. Because the data company wants to make more money, and also I think the last thing I’d throw in there in terms of a personal failure is–
Dave: Yeah, I want to hear about the personal failure.
Mike: These are all personal failures. I’ve gone without the funnel, I’ve gone in and not justified it. You got to start thinking that a lot of companies expect that you will start this community tomorrow and you’re going to have a million developers. It doesn’t work that way. In fact, every job I’ve taken I’ve said, “Look. In the first year you’re actually not going to see ROI. This could take a year before you even start seeing ROI, and this could take another year before I start putting real tangible dollar values that you can measure against for this.” But the other thing is sometimes it gets very easy to fall on one side or the other.
In community you are responsible to both the community and to the company, and you have to– There’s a very thin tightrope that you have to walk there.
You have to make sure that you’re supporting and protecting the community from the company, but you also make sure that you’re protecting the company from the community.
And that’s again, a very strong relationship for both. Sometimes it’s very easy to lean one way or the other and argue with your boss and tell him, “No. We’re not doing this,” or “No, sales isn’t important.” Not that I’d ever say that. Or, “I don’t understand why marketing does.” So be very careful in walking that, and understand that there’s always two sides. Your job is to really interpret that and navigate that.
Mike: Was that good enough, Dave? I can go into more, if you’d like.
Jesse: That was good enough. Tamao, why don’t you wrap it up for us? Answer this and we’ll start to get some questions.
Tamao: Yeah, I guess I’ll address that a lot of people here are talking about online communities, and it’s not necessarily failure or success, but be aware of what platform is best. Like, I’ve seen companies where they are desperately trying to have their own forum work, but everybody was at StackOverflow. So I was like, “Why are we working so hard to draw everybody to our tiny little pond when they’re out there in the ocean?” I had to change that mentality, or other people who do find actually a huge amount of success with their own discourse and the way that they engage, so they had a model that worked for them.
I’ve seen other models where they’re using discourse and they’re struggling to get engineering time to just make the plugins work. I would say that’s definitely not a super success.
Slack’s not perfect, but they’re just– I think sometimes if you’re just getting started, just go for the easiest thing where you can engage with people, and then figure out what you think might be the best for your product and what your needs are. Instead of starting thinking up front how much money you’re going to spend to build something that you might end up having to shut down in a couple of years.
Jesse: Awesome. All right, now we’ll open it up. Mina, if you’ll walk around I know there’s somebody right here in the front that is very eager to ask a question to us, the panelists. So, please.
Mike: I think the first thing you can do is start reaching out and talking to them, say “We noticed you’re using this product.
We’d love your feedback. We’d love to invite you to an office hours type thing.” That’s a good way to make them understand they have an impact on the product’s future and that they connect with you. Also again, your focus should be on the relationship and not the lead. That’d be the first thing.
The second thing is to start finding ways that you can work with them, so it can be a one on one where you’re saying, “Look.
We really love your experience, would you go and write a blog post on this? We’d be willing to do a guest blog on our blog.”
Again, you’re highlighting them, you’re giving them an opportunity to build their reputation, but also letting them share their knowledge. That goes on as you can eventually build, and you can start getting more formal programs in. But really, you want to find those people who are going to be your top advocates. Who as you launch your community program are going to be the cornerstones of what you’re building.
Dave: Yeah, and if they can’t do a blog post it could be a technical integration in an interview if it’s somebody non-technical.
But also, I would just ask “How are you currently interacting with your developers? What works?” Even if it’s just email, double down on the stuff that works. Don’t try to craft something from scratch.
Tamao: To piggyback, I’d say everybody has different modes in which they like to communicate, so have those different modes available. Whether it’s Slack or through regular call or some other means, that you just have those different channels available so that people can communicate in their time zone and in the method that they prefer.
Jesse: I would agree, and I would echo that. Build the relationships and go where they are, meet them where they are
and build that relationship.
Mike: If only there was a software company that could speak to that.
Dave: I don’t think any of the panelists have any idea, but maybe our moderator?
Jesse: Maybe the sponsor. Yeah, there is. There’s definitely a purpose built software out there for it. For definite sure. I would love to talk to you right after. No, yes. The answer is “Yes.”
Mike: To ruin your sales pitch really quickly, just because I’m going to get myself in trouble.
Jesse: I’ll pay you later.
Mike: There’s a lot of great tools out there. We mentioned there’s tools, AnswerHub specifically. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that or not, but it’s a tremendous form solution used at MuleSoft. We use it at RingCentral, absolutely a great product. There’s tools we mentioned for gamification, you can do tools and you can use Slack or Glip from RingCentral for team messaging. I’m getting paid for being up here now, I’m doing all the sponsor things.
Dave: You’re getting paid?
Mike: Not really. You’re not?
Dave: I’m missing out.
Mike: No, but you need to find the right tools for your community. So it may be something where you can look at IBM and say, “They have all this stuff.” Chances are, if you’re a startup you’re not ready for all the stuff IBM has and you’re not going to get– You guys have got a great community, like you’ve built this amazing thing.
Dave: Thanks, man.
Mike: But you’ll find the tools, again, to Tamao’s point of how your community is interacting with you. Use those tools first and start with that, you can expand and build and there’s a lot of great open-source tools you can start with until your company’s matured or you’ve matured. To the point of saying, “OK. I’m ready to really commit to this and purchase more expensive tooling.”
Jesse: The other thing I would say is no matter what tool you use, those relationships and that work to actually develop programs and be where the developers are, you still have to do all that stuff. A tool is only going to take you so far, so being able to think through a lot of the things we talked about on health and vibrancy and meeting the developers where they are, that relationship building is– you’ve got to do that stuff on your own, too.
Mike: I think the first thing with any community program when you start building the community program, you have to understand where your company stands in that community. In the case of RingCentral, I’ll pick on them, they’re a great company and they’re the leader in cloud communications. When I go developers are like “Are you guys
the doorbell company?” Or the other one that I got that I absolutely enjoy, it was just “I love you guys. You’re amazing. I sent a fax with you like 18 years ago.” Ouch. In the case of RingCentral, it’s like people know that one, we have an API. We have these capabilities and you can do a lot more communications than just make a phone call.
With MuleSoft, MuleSoft had gone from being open source to enterprise. We had a lot of developers that felt like we betrayed that trust when we took their code that they wrote and packaged it up and started selling it, so when we looked at MuleSoft we had a lot of different issues. We looked at our forum, we had a 35% response rate. Basically 3 out of every 10 questions that got an answer, most of those were “You should contact support.” Not very helpful. We had a lot of people who were very upset with us, so we started talking to different members and trying to understand what’s the underlying root problem. We said that the problem wasn’t that our forum was the wrong software, or people weren’t engaged there.
The problem was that they weren’t interested in what we’re doing. They’d lost that trust in us and they didn’t feel that they had a voice anymore. We went to people, Ross Mason who founded MuleSoft had originally just dubbed 10 MuleSoft champions, just like “You’re a champion, you’re a champion.” We went to them, we asked their feedback and we wanted respect that they weren’t the original champions and grandfather them in.
We talked to people, we posted on the forum, we asked for other people’s feedback in the community. I saw a lot of emails, people saying “What do you think?” Just by doing that, naturally we started to find people who are going to be the right people to help restart this community.
Then when my favorite ones is when we’ve launched the Champions program, I got a forum post from an individual and it was
probably four or five pages long about how I have single-handedly just killed the MuleSoft community. What he said was “You started this, the forums not working, this isn’t working, here’s all these issues. You don’t know what you’re doing, you’ve basically destroyed what’s left. You should be ashamed yourself.” So I reached out to him and I said, “I understand that this is really frustrating and I understand that you’re going through this again,” developers want to know that they’re being heard and they want honesty and integrity. “Here’s the deal. Try it out for a month, if you don’t like it let’s talk, and if it’s not making the community better we’ll kill it. Like, I’m going to give you that power.” A month later, and this is the only time this has ever happened in my life, I received an email from a developer with an apology. I’ve never seen that before.
And that individual actually became one of our top champions and one of our greatest advocates for the program. Now, what we did for the program is we looked at what we thought were the problems, and we thought the problem was– Look, there’s only so many finite influencers in the community to begin with. In the [inaudible] we say, “OK. There’s 100 influencers, let’s go after that 100 influencers.” And what happens is you have all four of us going after 100 people. Maybe I get 20, he gets 30, you get 30 and Jesse gets the other 20, and we keep fighting to keep them. We wanted to give people the chance to grow and become an influencer in their communities, we wanted to create new thought leaders and new experts. So we segmented the challenges based on their expertise, where it was you are– “Are you familiar with [inaudible]? Have you worked with MuleSoft?
How would you rate yourself?” We made a font, and it wasn’t like “I am a senior software engineer,” it was, “I’m a MuleSoft ninja.”
Then based on that, they got challenges that were specifically designed to help them build their reputation and grow their skills. So there were some things like reblog post, we used log unification, so here’s a bunch of free points and you’ll be given a bunch points for this. Then it was things like, “Use your first app, write your first app,” so they got a chance to understand how to do it and give us feedback. Walking away to ask a question on the forum, help someone on the forum. I credit a little bit of this to–
Jesse: Not your full plan, your abbreviated plan.
Mike: My abbreviated plan, sorry.
Jesse: Your abbreviated plan. This is the longest answer ever.
Mike: I was just going to say, I compare a lot of this to AnswerHub, and [I’m sorry about that]. But we actually went from a thirty five percent response rate to– I’ve never seen this is my life before, a 99% response rate with our forum and we tripled the number of posts.
But the idea is again, give them challenges to help them grow, take them from where they are to where they want to be, and help them become that leader in the community.
Again, you can do prizes and you can do badges. People are going to join because they either want the prize, they want the fun in the competition, or they want the recognition. That’s what you can really help with.
Jesse: What I really liked about your answer in there is relationship building, back to that thing we keep coming at, community. Whether it’s online or in person it’s about bringing people together, letting them connect and giving them somewhere they can belong. So if you do that, you won’t go wrong.
Tamao: Super quickly, you should start your champions program on day one. Your champions program, just like I said earlier, say “Thank you.” Tweet out something cool that somebody has done in your community. Sometimes we’ll find out “You’re in our city.” We’re really small, but we’re quite distributed. So I’ll find out the guy in Berlin is going to go have coffee with somebody in our community because we’re both in Berlin. Like, you don’t have to have this whole platform in a program. Your program is to make sure that you have that perspective deeply embedded within not just hopefully your developer relations team, but your whole company. Where you’re saying “Thank you,” and if you’re all at the same conference, “Let’s say hello,” and just recognizing and creating connections.
Jesse: Awesome. Great answers. I hope that that helped. Good question. Tamao, you look like you’re about to answer.
Tamao: I was just saying, “You get free trials?” I don’t know. That’s one way.
Dave: Is your product–? Like, are your customers technical developers? OK, so then I think it almost doesn’t matter if it’s open
source or closed source, because they’re going to be having issues. No offense, they’re going to be having issues using your product and integrating with your product, integrating your product with their product, writing middleware and glue code and stuff like that. So, they are going to be asking questions and getting support in a similar way to the way that they would in an open source project. So, it’s your responsibility to curate a community that helps solve those problems.
Mike: It’s an interesting question, because I had a friend reach out, he’s doing a startup and he said, “Look. We’re creating this product and we don’t have anything done yet, we just have a mockup. Would you come and take a look at it?” I came and I looked at it, and it was like, “This is amazing.” I was able to give feedback and I was able to interact. I’ll tell you, I’m going to be the first person to buy that product when it comes out, and I’m also going to be the first person singing its praises.
Just by doing that simple step of saying, “Look. It’s not out yet,” but involving people and getting that feedback, you’re starting to build that community. Then when it launches I’m going to be on Twitter, I’m going to be writing blog posts about it. Just like Goat Yoga, it hopefully becomes viral and other people will talk about it as well. RingCentral is the same boat, we’re an API and that’s where my focus is on.
We don’t have an open source project, and as Dave said it’s a service. So you can involve them in entry very different, it’s just the
acts are slightly different and you’re going to have to change some of the approaches, but you absolutely involve them as soon as possible.
Jesse: I think that every interaction that you get with a user of your software is an opportunity to build community. When we break it down into the fundamentals of the human relationship, every time that you help someone with a bug, anytime that you can write a piece of documentation or something they can read together, if you make that something that they can contribute to as well.
Anything that you do, every interaction that you get with one of the users of your software is an opportunity to build community.
I think if we change that and think about it that way, in building groups of people using our software, and developers specifically, helping them in any way that we can I think we’ll do all right. Thanks to the Heavybit team for hosting us this evening, it was awesome.
Thanks to each one of you for sharing part of your evening with us. We appreciate it, and thanks to our panelists, my friends and colleagues in the community space. Thanks so much for showing up. Give them a hand, thanks.
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